The year was 1861; the place, Pea Ridge, Union County, South Carolina. A spectacular and frightening event happened in the back-country of the county and people still talk about it one hundred and sixty years later


In 1983, the United States Postal Service released a set of four beautiful hot air balloon stamps to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first hot air balloon flight. The balloon on the left named The Intrepid was owned and used to spy on Confederate forces in the Civil War by Professor Thaddeus Sobieski Constance Lowe (1832-1913).

Thaddeus Lowe was born August 20, 1832 in Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire. He was the second child born into a respectable family of former soldiers, merchants, and politicians. Although his formal education was somewhat limited, he made up for the lack of schooling by constantly reading. His drive to succeed and his above average intelligence led him to great adventures, great inventions, fortune and fame.

Thaddeus Lowe became interested in aviation, as in hot air balloons, and he studied the art and science of balloon building. He also became interested in Leontine Augustine Gaschon, a 19 year old actress from Paris whom he married in 1855. His newly-wed wife supported his balloon building endeavors and he built his first balloon in 1857, His second balloon, The Enterprise, was finished in 1858.

Thaddeus Lowe had a dream — an ambition, really — to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in one of his hot air balloons. He studied high altitude winds and he was confident that he would succeed in this journey. The scientific community was confident as well, and he had their backing.

On April 12, 1861, the first shot of the American Civil War was fired just before sunrise at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. In the early morning, pre-dawn hours of April 19, 1861, Professor Thaddeus Lowe left Cincinnati Ohio in his hot air balloon, The Enterprise, on a test flight bound for Washington, D.C. After traveling nine hours and eight hundred miles, he landed “slightly” off course in the Kelton farmlands of Union County, South Carolina.

Pea Ridge is not on the coast of South Carolina but the map is interesting, if inaccurate.

There was no photographer present to preserve Professor Lowe’s arrival. Instead, we are fortunate to have a visual “snapshot”—his observations of the locals: “the gun toting men who met him in the field with mostly reddish long hair and beards…their rotund stomachs covered with blue jean clothing and their heads with slouch hats”.

Stephen Fowler was the third son born to Ephraim Fowler and Nancy Moseley. He was born circa 1800 in Union County, and he was married twice–his first wife being Sarah, and his second, Letticia.

In my search for records of Stephen Fowler, his mention in the Balloon Landing saga is an extraordinary glimpse into a day in his life. It is most fortunate for us that he and the two brave female members of his family were involved with the events on April 20, 1861, and even more so that their names were recorded for posterity.

While many of the men cowered behind bushes, two brave women, Theresa Hames and Susie Palmer, took hold of the rope that Professor Lowe dropped to the earth, and pulled him out of the sky. Once he had convinced the frightened spectators who had witnessed the balloon’s descent that he was neither a Yankee spy nor the devil, he was taken into a small cabin and fed a lunch of cornbread. Afterwards, he and his hot air balloon were loaded upon a large, lumbering wagon pulled by six mules and driven by Stephen Fowler to Unionville.

One of the rope-pulling women, Susie Palmer, — born Mary Susan Fowler in 1834 — was a daughter of Stephen Fowler and his first wife Sarah. She married Jackson Palmer. She died June 30, 1918 and was buried in the Haney graveyard in Kelton, not so very far from the site of the Balloon Landing.

Theresa Hames, the other rope-pulling woman, was the daughter of Stephen’s sister, Lydia Fowler Hames and husband Charles Hames. Theresa Hames was recorded in the 1860 Union County census living at Mount Joy……the present site of the Balloon Landing historical marker.

We must assume that the elderly Stephen Fowler lived near the landing site since he furnished the wagon. If one looks at the names and ages of the families who lived near Stephen Fowler in the 1860 census, we can get an idea of the audience who witnessed the balloon landing, taking into consideration that many of the men had already gone to war.

After Stephen Fowler’s death in 1866, his estate was appraised and sold at auction. Among his many possessions were a wagon and several mules, perhaps the very wagon and mules that he used to transport Professor Lowe and his deflated hot air balloon to Unionville in 1861!

left to right: Sarah Francis Bevis Holcomb and her granddaughter Rachel Holcomb; Thesis Fowler and her great grandmother Melissa Swann Aycock

The photograph above was taken seventy years after the Balloon Landing, on April 20, 1931, when a monument was placed on the site to commemorate the momentous occasion. Sarah Frances “Fannie” Bevis Holcomb (1842-1936) and Melissa Swann Aycock (1944-1937) were present the day Thaddeus Lowe landed in Union County in 1861 and also present the day in 1931 that the monument was put into place.

Fannie Bevis was 19 years old when the balloon came to earth. She was the daughter of William Bevis and Zilla Hames (1812-1883). Zilla Hames was the daughter of Sarah Fowler and John Hames. Sarah Fowler was the daughter of Ephraim Fowler and the sister of Stephen Fowler who was the wagon master of the day.

Melissa Swann was 17 years old on Balloon Day. She was the wife of Jasper Aycock (1829-1899) and they were the parents of States Rights Aycock (1860-1926) who married Ella Rice Rogers (1867-1947). Their daughter Mamie Aycock (1886-1972) provided the connection to the Ephraim Fowler family by marrying Richard Franklin Fowler (1878-1961), son of Henry Richard Fowler, son of Ellis Fowler, son of Ephraim Fowler. Thesis Fowler (in the photo with her grandmother Melissa Swann Aycock) was the daughter of Richard Franklin Fowler and Mamie Aycock.

Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon, The Enterprise, did not just land in Union County. It landed solidly down on — likely — Fowler owned land! There were other neighbors nearby not related to the Fowler family who witnessed and participated in the most unusual event, but when one takes a look at the descendants of Ephraim Fowler who were present and involved, it is a a day of much genealogical significance for the Fowler family!

We know that these descendants of Ephraim Fowler were there:

  • Theresa Hames (daughter of Lydia Fowler) pulled the rope to bring Professor Lowe to earth
  • Mary Susan Fowler Palmer (daughter of Stephen Fowler) also pulled the rope
  • Stephen Fowler (son of Ephraim) took Professor Lowe and the ballon to Unionville in his wagon
  • Sarah Francis “Fannie” Bevis Holcomb (granddaughter of Sarah Fowler) witnessed the event
  • Melissa Swann Aycock (future ancestor of Thesis Fowler) also witnessed the landing.

One has to wonder whose cabin Professor Lowe was taken to for his meager lunch? My guess is a Fowler cabin. There were at least two slave children in the cabin sitting by the fire.

I do not know if the monument of 1931 still stands in the field. I shall look for it next time I am there. In 2009, the Union County Historical Society erected a sign near Mount Joy Church. The location of the sign is not on the exact spot of the actual landing but it does bring to the attention of the local residents that something of historical importance happened nearby.

The 1931 Monument on the left and the 2009 Historical Marker of the right.

Professor Thaddeus Lowe was an intelligent man, and he landed in the midst of an honest but uneducated people. Afterwards, he wrote of his journey and his balloon’s descent into the backwoods of South Carolina. His description of the people that he encountered — my people- was demeaning and unkind

These Fowlers and their Pea Ridge neighbors could not read and write. They perhaps acted out of fear never having seen a balloon descend out of the heavens. It was 1861 and war had begun. Their uneasiness and suspicions of their unexpected guest who dropped out of the sky were justified.

In spite of their fears and doubts about him, they puled him to earth. They fed him and they gave him a wagon ride to Unionville to catch a train. They were rewarded with callous remarks and descriptions printed in newspapers all over the country portraying them as backwood hillbillies. Even the letter (excerpt below) from Professor Lowe’s daughter that was sent after the 1931 monument dedication did not align with the previous remarks of the Professor himself.

The people who witnessed the balloon landing wanted to shoot him, pulled him to earth, thought him to be Yankee spy, still wanted to shoot him, fed him, wanted to arrest him, and took him to Union over bumpy roads in a lumbering wagon. Professor Lowe never felt any cordial reception. I am sure he felt fear and regret– deep regret that he had ever landed in such a place. I am especially sure that the words “True Southern Hospitality” never crossed his educated mind.

Ironically, in July 1861, only three months after he landed in Union County, Professor Thaddeus Lowe, bringing along his ballon The Enterprise, met with President Abraham Lincoln. He never made his transatlantic flight, but he did become a Yankee spy. Did this idea form in his mind after the people of Pea Ridge had accused him of being a Yankee spy? His first flight for the Union Army was at the Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, where Thomas W. “Bunker” Fowler (1834-1861) became the first man from Union County to be killed in the War.

Professor Thaddeus Lowe was an aviation expert, Army spy, inventor, scientist, owner of a railroad, father of ten children. He became very wealthy and built a 24,000 square foot home in Pasadena, California. He lived a long life of eighty years. His accomplishments were many and great. His life is worth an internet search; there has been much written about him.

His greatest gift to me, no doubt in my mind, is the day he spent with my family in the backwoods of Pea Ridge. In spite of the bad reviews that he left behind of my people, he gave me a glimpse into the lives that they led, even if only for a brief moment in time. Thank you, Professor Lowe.

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